Sukumar Ray died young, too young for our liking you might say. Born in 1887, he saw his life draw to an end in 1923. But then, considering the vast repertoire of intellectual accomplishments he has left behind, you just might feel you really ought to have little cause for complaint. His all too brief life was lived in the fullness of creation. How many others can you cite, off the top of your head, who achieved as much as Sukumar Ray? Yes, there have been poets --- Keats, Chatterton, Sukanto, Abul Hasan --- who were to pass on even before they could graduate out of youth and into a higher degree of maturity. They made their own contributions to poetry, indeed to aesthetics. But Ray was of a different class altogether. Talent was all and, with that, a ferocious capacity for work.
Think back on all the humour he brought into life. If you sit back and reflect on the world of Bengali creativity, you will perhaps stumble on the thought that a sense of humour, in the way we know it, has not generally been part of the Bengali literary psyche. You might even be tempted to argue that the Bengali thought process is an extremely intellectualized version of life and the realities it is lived through. But that again would be your own considered opinion. One might not agree with you. But surely there is unanimity of thought when it comes to assessing Sukumar Ray. Of course he was the son of Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, a giant in the Bengali world of letters in his own right. And of course Sukumar Ray is the father of the inimitable Satyajit Ray. There is a sense in us of a cerebral dynasty at work here. And in that dynastic pattern of things, Sukumar injected his own energy, of the sort you can only detect in such undertakings as the Nonsense Club. Not many would have that kind of innovation. Not many would let you in on the truth that even within the vast sphere of nonsense, of pure silliness we wallow through on a quotidian basis, there lie scattered the gems of thought which whet the imagination for an enhanced degree of inquiry on our part. Go back to the plays Sukumar wrote for the club --- Jhalapala and Lakshmaner Shatishel --- and you will know.
Now, there is Abol Tabol. An atmosphere of strangeness is what you find yourself in the moment you go into reading the creative nonsense there. Not long ago (and that was when Satyajit Ray was yet living) Sukanta Chaudhuri went for a translation of Sukumar Ray. He called it The Select Nonsense of Sukumar Ray. The strangeness is in making the discovery that it is anything but nonsense, for you come away from the rhymes (in the Bengali original as also in the English translation) a trifle reflective, a little wiser. And that was Sukumar Ray. The dimensions of his literary nonsense could in a way remind you of Lewis Carroll, if indeed you are in the mood to compare. Truth be told, though, literature does not really work on the basis of comparisons. Originality is all. And originality Sukumar had in plenty. Whether it was Abol Tabol (Gibberish), HaJaBaRaLa, Pagla Dashu or the play Chalachittachanchari, it was always a matter of new ideas being thrown up by their author.
There was irreverence in Sukumar Ray, of the kind that challenged established notions but without provoking hostility. That was a principle behind the working of what he would call the Monday Club. It was a chance, the club, for the young to tear the conventional world into pieces and dwell on the brave new world that would supplant it. But then, there was all the difference between reality and illusion; and Sukumar Ray knew it. And yet illusion was what he brought into the lives of Bengali children, the better to prepare them for the bizarre and the eerie that would one day insinuate their way into their lives.
Sukumar Ray, you may well come to believe all these decades after his death from kala azar in 1923, was energy that was forever shooting forth. Consider the education he went through. You would think literature was the field through which he would prepare to meet the world. He did not do that. He did his honours in physics and chemistry from Presidency College, Calcutta. The next move was for him to journey all the way to England, to know all there was to know about photography and printing technology. When he returned to India, he swiftly earned a reputation as the man who had pioneered photography and lithography in his country. The versatility in him, though, was constantly on display. Even as he studied in England, he acquainted Englishmen and women with the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. And that was quite some before the bard was to come by the Nobel Prize for literature.
Sukumar Ray would edit Sandesh, a children’s magazine Upendrakishore inaugurated in 1913 after the latter’s death. He improved on the work his father had already done through adding to the richness of the journal. To the poetry and stories were now added essays, news on current affairs, puzzles, folk tales and riddles.
But Sukumar Ray would not live long. Illness came as a damper and slowed him down. At age thirty six, he was dead. His son Satyajit was two and a half years old at the time.
(Sukumar Ray was born on 30 October 1887 and died on 10 September 1923)